Review: Black Coffee

Black Coffee
Black Coffee by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #1 for 2017
GenreLand: Fiction
Better World Books Tasks:
– A book with a color in the title
– A book under 200 pages
– A book by a female writer
– A book that’s been adapted into a movie
Read Harder Task: A book published between 1900 and 1950
PopSugar Tasks:
– A book by an author who uses a pseudonym
– A book written by someone you admire
– A book with an eccentric character
– A book that’s mentioned in another book
Book Bingo Square: A Book from the Library
Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Ultimate Reading Challenge Task: A script or screenplay
Follow the Clues Challenge: Chain 1, Clue 1

This, Christie’s first foray into writing for the stage, usually appears on bibliographies with a 1934 date. That was when it was first published, but it was first produced in 1930. Christie had always been fascinated by the theatre, and this had been evident in her stories, so it’s not surprising that she would explore the play form herself instead of leaving it to other writers. This is not an adaptation of an already published story, but an original Poirot piece, later adapted to the big screen and also novelized.

I have read the Osborne novelization, probably not long after it first came out. I don’t really remember much about it, but of course it’s likely that I did subconsciously remember some of the elements of the plot, which might be why this puzzle seemed rather simple to me. It’s also possible that Christie meant for the solution to be a bit obvious to the audience so that Poirot, arriving on scene later and putting it all together without the benefit of having actually witnessed certain things, would seem just that much more brilliant.

I regret that I’m not familiar enough with early 20th-century plays to know if this script was particularly notable or innovative in any way. The contemporary reviews I’ve glanced through seem to be mixed but generally favorable. I think it’s extremely interesting that Christie was writing about atomic weapons in 1930 — and I found the ending particularly satisfying in this regard — but that’s something many reviewers seem to ignore. I’m not sure why.

As I continue in my “completist Christie challenge,” I’m looking forward to watching Christie’s development as a playwright as well as a novelist. I would recommend this to Christie readers and theatre fans in general, but I will warn you that it’s full of typos — in three different languages, no less. I’m not sure if that’s normal for a play that’s been around for nearly 90 years, but some readers may find this too annoying to bother with.

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Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #65 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Task: A National Book Award winner
The Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Modest Reading Challenge Task: A book that was banned at some point

I wasn’t really looking forward to reading this book. It’s about a teenage boy struggling to fit in at a new high school. That isn’t the sort of thing that appeals to me. But in this semi-autobiographical tale of Arnold “Junior” Spirit, Alexie offers a unique perspective that is entertaining, touching, and thought-provoking. It isn’t a long story, but he explores issues of race, bullying, substance abuse, poverty, and sexuality as well as the meaning of friendship and the general awkwardness of being a teenage boy.

I listened to this on CD, so I didn’t see the illustrations, but I think I’m okay with that. I’m not much of a cartoon person to begin with, and my understanding is that Alexie didn’t do the illustrations himself. If I happen upon a hard copy, I’ll probably take a look, but it’s not something I will actively seek out. As it is, I highly recommend the audio version. Alexie narrates, and the rhythm and flow of his Native American speech patterns add a lot to the story, making Junior’s emotional struggles feel genuine and straightforward.

It angers me that this book has been challenged and even flat-out banned in at least one school district. And kudos to those involved in getting free copies into the hands of students who were the victims of that move. I would recommend this book to any teen, but especially to ones who could use either representation of or exposure to the issues faced by Native American students. Evidently, there are quite a few adults who could stand to read it as well.

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Review: Armageddon Dimes

Armageddon Dimes
Armageddon Dimes by Aaron Michael Ritchey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #64 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Task (part 2 of 2): A book and its prequel.

For a short prequel, this novella does an impressive job of providing glimpses of characters’ backstories as well as a new perspective on the conflicts that led up to the action in Dandelion Iron. The frame story, a series of interviews with war veteran Mariposa, goes beyond showing how badass she and her comrades were. It also shows the emotional impact the war and her later adventures ultimately had on all of them. This is a tragic tale, full of horrors of various kinds, but mostly of the spirit.

Fans of Wren Weller will be interested to know that we see an interesting side of her here, and we also get some hints about Cavatica’s role in later books. I’m looking forward to reading Killdeer Winds, but it seems there are also two other prequels I need to find: Trapdoor Boy and Four Clubs.

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A Short Story Challenge

Yes, I’ve joined another challenge. But this one isn’t about books. At least, not specifically about books. It’s about short stories. A thousand of them, to be exact. In a year. Well, we’ll see about that. For myself, I may end up making this a perpetual challenge to see how long it takes me to read 1,000 short stories, then seeing if I can shorten the length of time it takes me to read another 1,000 short stories.

This challenge was posed by writer Travis Richardson, and the Twitter hashtag is #1000storychallenge, so you can join in or at least follow along and see how we’re doing. I’m grateful for this challenge because I feel like I’ve strayed from my short story roots. I’ve been focused on novels the past several years, but once upon a time I wrote lots of short stories. I even submitted many of them, and some of them saw publication. I had a sort of natural storytelling flow of about 2,500 words. But now I try to write something to a submission guideline of 5,000 to 10,000 words, and I feel cramped and stifled. More often than not I give up and declare it the start of another novel. But I’m set for novel starts at the moment and would rather avoid starting more until I get one out into the world.

So yes, I would like to get back into the mode of writing short stories to the point that I always have at least one out for submission. The Missouri Review just announced their contest winners, so my current-submission count is officially zero. But reading short stories, besides helping me get back into that concise rhythm, gives me exposure to more markets to try. Considering what a long-shot my TMR contest entry was — I wonder if their staff had ever before had to read a steampunk machine of death story — this is something I desperately need.

On Joining the Legendary Book Club of Habitica

Apparently I didn’t actually join the Legendary Book Club of Habitica when I joined the guild’s 2016 Modest Reading Challenge. Or maybe I did and they kicked me out because I didn’t post enough? But I did complete the challenge, which was a mere 12 books. Anyway, when I went to look at the 2017 challenges, I made sure to join the guild. And this year I decided to attempt the Ultimate Reading Challenge, which is 52 books.

I know, I know, I said I was done joining annual challenges, but I took a peek at this one and realized that it’s composed almost entirely of tasks I already have for other challenges. So I would be a fool not to join. A fool, I say! So, here are the 52 tasks (in no particular order):

Since double-dipping is discouraged in this challenge, and I have to mark a task as completed in order to get the xp for it, I’m going to be declaring each task as it is completed and just hope it works out well. Most of these I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to read, but a few are new tasks. Like “a book with a chase scene.” Anybody have any suggestions for that one?

Review: A Bad Day for Pretty

A Bad Day for Pretty
A Bad Day for Pretty by Sophie Littlefield
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Book #63 for 2016
PopSugar Challenge Task: A book set in your home state
Personal Challenge Task: A book set in a place I know well

C’mon, Sophie, do a fellow Missouri girl a solid and explain to me why you took roughly 1/3 of the State of Missouri and smooshed it down into one fictional county that is apparently tiny enough to require a mere 25 or so (and that’s a generous estimate) sworn deputies? Because it’s driving me absolutely bonkers! Seriously, I don’t know if I can read any more in this series, which is a damn shame, because I really like Stella and her people. I know these folks. They’re very real to me, and I like visiting them in this fashion. (The alternative is to attend my 30-year high school reunion this year, and that’s a little too real for me right now.)

I’m not sure how much of my 3-star rating is due to my continued geographical frustrations and how much is due to a feeling that this follow-up to A Bad Day for Sorry just wasn’t as good. There seemed to be a lot of little things that added up to a sense of disappointment. Like a lifelong Missouri resident with twister-based PTSD not knowing the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. How is that even possible? Goat should have known better, too.

But the mystery itself and its investigation felt weak, and Brandy’s character was almost as inconsistent as NewQuarter01 in Alif the Unseen. She also did not seem at all like any kind of love interest ever for Goat, not even a young and stupid Goat. But he supposedly fell for her as a mature adult? Not buying it.

Still, it was a fun ride as long as I turned off my internal cartographer, and Littlefield touched on some interesting issues, like the trend of elderly oxy addicts that has kind of blindsided the substance abuse treatment community. I’d like to read more in the series, but for my sanity’s sake, I just can’t make it a priority.

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More 2017 Reading Challenges

Okay, the first week of 2017 has already come and gone (and Betty White is still alive!) so it’s time to nail down my reading challenge goals for the year. dff0b868f44a5487f22365767ea081d0

The aforementioned Book Riot Read Harder Challenge and Award-Winning Science Fiction and Fantasy Challenge have both been updated for 2017.

Book Riot specifically states that double-dipping is acceptable for Read Harder, so I may do a little bit of that, but I will still try not to. The method I plan to use is to note all applicable categories when I finish/review the book, but I won’t officially declare the book for the category unless it doesn’t fit any other categories for that challenge. Needlessly complicated? Probably. That’s just how I roll.

For Shaunesay’s AWSFF Challenge, I am shooting for the Orion level (9 to 12 novels). (Shooting…stars….get it? ::sigh::) The categories only come into play for the bingo games, and Shaunesay is clear that not only may a book not count for more than one bingo square, it may not count for more than one bingo. I will definitely be giving bingo a try on the card that is a holdover from the 2016 challenge, but I doubt I will get very far on the Grand Master bingo cards. I’ve printed them out and will see how it goes, but I don’t hold out much hope for success there, as most of the GMs on the cards are not ones I’m already intending to read this year.

Speaking of bingo, there’s a Goodreads challenge group for 2017 Book Bingo. It has a lot of crossover to other challenges, and (unless the rules explicitly prohibit it) I always permit myself to count a book across multiple challenges, so this one should be relatively easy. So far I’ve finished two books for 2017, and I can fit both of them onto this board, which bodes well.

Another challenge with a game board is my local library’s GenreLand Challenge. It doesn’t have signups and prizes like the library’s summer challenge does, but it’s a nice low-pressure way to read eclectically throughout the year.

There’s another category-based challenge I’m doing since it also has a fair amount of crossover to other challenges. It’s from online book shop Better World Books, which is partially to blame for the fact that my library is measured in tons.

And I had better stop there, so I’ll wrap up with a quick reminder that the three (okay, maybe four if I make good on that threat to host a cat-cover challenge) reading challenges that I am hosting can be found in my new Goodreads group, Challenges from Exploding Steamboats. Invite all your Goodreads friends and frenemies!


A Few Holiday Dishes

We had houseguests for a few weeks, and we also hosted two year-end parties, so I did a lot of fancier food prep than normal. I forgot to take photos of most of it, but I did manage a few shots before it was too late.

img_20161231_195658Just barely, in this case! This is (or was) my prize-winning Pomme-Pom Salad. It’s super-easy, if you buy the pomegranate seeds already removed. (Not so much if you remove the seeds yourself. But it’s not difficult, just really, really tedious.) Just chop up some apples, toss them in with pomegranate seeds, and stir in some yogurt. Here I used Noosa‘s honey flavor. In the past I’ve sometimes used plain or vanilla. I’m not sure what kind of apple I used here, but I often use Honeycrisp or similar.

For dip, I started with Michaela’s dill pickle dip recipe but made significant changes to it. For starters, I prefer sweet pickles, so I substituted them for the dill pickles. I think I used a slightly smaller jar of pickles than the 16 ounces she calls for, but it seemed to work just fine. I did use the 16 ounces of softened cream cheese, but as I got to chopping the first 4.5 ounces of dried beef, I quickly realized that 9 ounces of dried beef is a LOT of dried beef. So I still have another jar of dried beef and am looking forward to making and consuming another batch of this stuff.

Some of you may be wondering what dried beef is. I was just going to use deli-sliced corned beef until a friend sent me a photo of the jarred stuff from Armour. (That’s my photo above, but they are essentially the same picture.) Apparently Michaela got asked a lot, so she posted a photo of what she uses, which is a different brand (Hormel) and is in the refrigerated section. Maybe next time I will try that.

I used brick cream cheese this time but will probably try it with soft cream cheese (in a tub) soon. Even softened, this was a bit of a challenge to mix thoroughly. Either way, I recommend putting out rather sturdy crackers for this dip.

While at Costco (which is where I got the pomegranate seeds, in case you’re wondering), I bought a bunch of Medjool dates on impulse. My in-laws had purchased some bacon, and I pretty much always have chèvre on hand, so even though I had never tried it before, chèvre-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates just seemed like a no-brainer. img_20170106_194130

Other than being kind of messy to prep, they really are pretty simple. Pit a bunch of dates. Stuff the dates with a bunch of chèvre. Wrap them in bacon (just one time around), securing them with toothpicks, and pop them in the oven. I made several batches, and 380F seemed to work pretty well. I put them in for about 10 minutes, flipped them, and then gave them another 10 minutes.

I have some uncooked bacon pieces left over from last night’s batch, and I also happen to have most of a bottle of Dancing Pines bourbon left over from my attempt at sweet potato pecan pie with bourbon cream sauce (which was okay but needs some work), so I’m thinking I might try something called bacon-infused bourbon. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Review: Joyland

Joyland by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book #61 for 2016
My Personal Reading Challenge Task: A book featuring an amusement park.

This book is put out by a mystery publisher, but it’s a mystery in much the same way The Green Mile is a mystery. It is, and the mystery plays an important role, but it’s not what the book is about in its heart. In its heart of hearts, this is a nostalgic coming-of-age story about coming to terms with loss. But it’s set in an amusement park, and it’s Stephen King, so you know it has to be pretty damn creepy, am I right? And being set in 1973, the nods to Scooby-Doo are spot-on.

The story shifts between the narrator’s summer job during his college days and his retired self recalling it decades later. King handled this nicely, providing some foreshadowing and also giving some context for some of the details he pointed out or glossed over, as needed. It also made for a narrator who was realistically unreliable but still trustworthy.

This would be a good starting point for somebody wanting to try King but not wanting full-on horror. The horror element here is pretty light, and if you ask me, the most horrifying scene actually revolves around performing CPR with mouth-to-mouth. Also, at 7 discs, this is pretty dang short for King, so it’s not a huge time investment. I would also recommend this book to anybody with a particular interest in old-school amusement parks, as at times it felt like King wrote this book just to talk about carny culture. (That’s not a criticism. He was clearly enjoying himself, and it was surprisingly interesting.)

My only real criticism is that the mystery portion of the story is kind of weak, with Erin (the Daphne character to Jonesy’s Scooby) stepping up to do the bulk of the sleuthing(view spoiler). Still, everything came together quite nicely, and I think the core story is well worth reading on its own merits. Overall, it’s a 4.5-star kind of read, and I’ll round up to 5.

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Review: The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots

The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots
The Tale of Kitty-in-Boots by Beatrix Potter

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Book #59 for 2016

I’m not sure where to start. Well, okay, let’s start with this: I bought this book by mistake. I was looking for something that I “should have read in school” for a reading challenge, and I was running very short on time and decided hey, Montessori (which I attended when I was four) is a school, which totally made children’s picture books fair game. I saw Beatrix Potter’s name on the cover, and since I didn’t think I’d ever actually read any Beatrix Potter, I thought I was saved. Yeah, not so much.

You see, this book did not exist when I was a tyke. Potter wrote it in 1914, yes, but she never illustrated it and she tucked it away. As a writer, I can tell you that when a creative tucks something away unfinished and never revisits it, there is probably a good reason, and it should probably stay tucked away. But there is this current fad of rooting around in the slop buckets of dead and dying authors, pulling out gok what, and publishing it. In this case, they also hired an illustrator (Quentin Blake) whose work is so unlike Potter’s that I have to think they did it on purpose, but I can’t think why. It’s ugly and sloppy and drab and unrefined. True, I’m not a particular fan of Beatrix Potter, but at least I look at her illustrations and have a vaguely positive and appreciative reaction.

As for the story, well, I don’t have any experience with Potter’s oeuvre (except possibly for one time that I seem to recall my mom trying to read me something about clothed, talking rabbits stealing cabbages and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around the concept of a cabbage, which I had apparently never encountered, so we didn’t get very far, and googling it just now suggests that it was actually a Peter Cottontail story, which is a whole different thing, even if Peter Cottontail’s real name was Peter Rabbit, and why in the holy heck did nobody sue anybody before this actually became a thing?), so I can’t tell you how this compares to her other stories. But as an adult who has read enough early 20th-century English literature and history to be reasonably familiar with that way of life, I found this story strange and confusing, so I can’t imagine any modern American child making any sense of it whatsoever. My guess is that this was a rough draft that Potter never felt compelled to work further on, but somebody decided to make a quick buck off of it.

And they somehow roped Helen Mirren into this. The book comes with a CD of her narrating the story. I was sorely tempted to listen to it to see how many f-bombs she managed to drop (I adore Helen Mirren!!) but I also had the idea that, since the book was still in pristine condition after one reading, I might donate it to a holiday toy drive. But I couldn’t bring myself to inflict this, even with the delightful prospect of Mirren teaching some little girl how to tell some presumptuous boy to fuck off, on some poor child who would be much happier (and rightfully so) with a video game. Hell, even a Hatchimal would be better entertainment.

So, there it sits on a table in my living room. I have no idea what to do with it.

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